The Harvard Crimson Review of 2001

by Tim Hunter,
with Stephen Kaplan and Peter Jaszi

As a film about progress -- physical, social, and technological -- Stanley Kubrick's huge and provocative 2001: A Space Odyssey remains essentially linear until its extraordinary ending. In the final transfiguration, director Kubrick and co-author Arthur Clarke (Childhood's End) suggest that evolutionary progress may in fact be cyclical, perhaps in the shape of a helix formation. Man progresses to a certain point in evolution, then begins again from scratch on a higher level. Much of 2001's conceptual originality derives from its being both anti-Christian and antievolutionary in its theme of man's progress controlled by an ambiguous extraterrestrial force, possibly both capricious and destructive.

If the above seems a roundabout way to open a discussion of an eleven- million-dollar Cinerama spectacular, it can only be said that Kubrick's film is as personal as it is expensive, and as ambitious an attempt at metaphysical philosophy as it is at creating a superb science-fiction genre film. Consequently, 2001 is probable commercial poison. A sure-fire audience baffler guaranteed to empty any theater of ten percent of its audience, 2001 is even now being reedited by Kubrick to shorten the 165 minute length by 15-odd minutes. 2001, as it is being shown in Boston now, is in a transitional stage, the theater currently exhibiting a splice-ridden rough-cut while awaiting new prints from the M-G-M labs. Although some sequences are gone, most of the cutting consists of shortening lengthy shots that dwelled on slow and difficult operation of space-age machinery. Kubrick probably regrets his current job of attempting to satisfy future audiences: the trimming of two sequences involving the mechanics of entering and controlling "space pods," one-man spaceships launched from the larger craft, may emphasize plot action but only at the expense of the eerie and important continuity of technology that dominates most of the film. 2001 is, among other things, a slow-paced intricate stab at creating an aesthetic from natural and material things we have never seen before: the film's opening, "The Dawn of Man," takes place four million years ago (with a cast composed solely of australopithecines, tapirs, and a prehistoric leopard), and a quick cut takes us past the history of man into the future.

Kubrick's dilemma in terms of satisfying an audience is that his best work in 2001 is plotless slow-paced material, an always successful creation of often ritualistic behavior of apes, men, and machines with whom we are totally unfamiliar. In the longer version, the opening of Astronaut Poole's (Gary Lockwood) pod scene is shot identically to the preceding pod scene with Astronaut Bowman (Keir Dullea), stressing standardized operational method by duplicating camera setups. This laborious preparation may appear initially repetitive until Poole's computer-controlled pod turns on him and murders him in space, thus justifying the prior duplication by undercutting it with a terrifyingly different conclusion. Throughout 2001, Kubrick suggests a constantly shifting balance between man and his tools, a dimension that largely vanishes from this particular scene in cutting the first half and making the murder more abrupt dramatically than any other single action in the film.

Even compromised in order to placate audiences, Kubrick's handling of the visual relationship between time and space is more than impressive. He has discovered that slow movement (of spacecraft, for example) is as impressive on a Cinerama screen as fast movement (the famous Cinerama roller-coaster approach), also that properly timed sequences of slow movement actually appear more real -- sometimes even faster -- than equally long long sequences of fast motion shots. No film in history achieves the degree of three-dimensional depth maintained consistently in 2001 (and climaxed rhapsodically in a shot of a pulsating stellar galaxy); Kubrick frequently focuses our attention to one side of the wide screen, then introduces an element from the opposite corner, forcing a reorientation which heightens our sense of personal observation of spontaneous reality.

His triumph, both in terms of film technique and directorial approach, is in the audience's almost immediate acceptance of special effects as reality: after we have seen a stewardess walk up a wall and across the ceiling early in the film, we no longer question similar amazements and accept Kubrick's new world without question. The credibility of the special effects established, we can suspend disbelief, to use a justifiable cliche, and revel in the beauty and imagination of Kubrick/Clarke's space. And turn to the challenging substance of the excellent screenplay.

2001 begins with a shot of an eclipse condition: the Earth, moon, and sun in orbital conjunction, shown on a single vertical plane in center screen. The image is central and becomes one of three prerequisites for each major progression made in the film.

The initial act of progress is evolutionary. A series of brief scenes establishes the life cycle of the australopithecine before its division into what became both ape and man -- they eat grass, are victimized by carnivores, huddle together defensively. One morning they awake to find in their midst a tall, thin, black rectangular monolith, its base embedded in the ground, towering monumentally above them, plainly not a natural formation. They touch it, and we note at that moment that the moon and sun are in orbital conjunction.

In the following scene, an australopithecine discovers what we will call the tool, a bone from a skeleton which, when used as an extension of the arm, adds considerably to the creature's strength. The discovery is executed in brilliant slow-motion montage of the pre-ape destroying the skeleton with the bone, establishing Kubrick and Clarke's subjective anthropological notion that the discovery of the tool was identical to that of the weapon. The "dawn of man," then, is represented by a coupling of progress and destruction; a theme of murder runs through 2001 simultaneously with that of progress. Ultimately, Kubrick shows an ambiguous spiritual growth through physical death.

The transition from prehistory to future becomes a simple cut from the bone descending in the air to a rocket preparing to land at a space station midway between Earth and Moon. A classic example of Bazin's "associative montage," the cut proves an effective, if simplistic, method of bypassing history and setting up the link between bone and rocket as the spectral tools of man, one primitive and one incredibly sophisticated.

On the Moon, American scientists discover an identical black monolith, apparently buried over four million years before, completely inert save for the constant emission of a powerful radio signal directed toward Jupiter. The scientists examine it (touching it tentatively as the apes did) at a moment when the Earth and sun are in conjunctive orbit. They conclude that some form of life on Jupiter may have placed the monolith there and, fourteen months later, an expedition is sent to Jupiter to investigate.

Two major progressions have been made: an evolutionary progression in the discovery of the tool, and a technological progression inherent in the trip to Jupiter. The discovery of the monolith has preceded each advance, and with it the conjunction of the sun and moons of a given planet, as well as the presence of ape or human at a stage of development where they are ready to make the significant progression. The monolith, then, begins to represent something of a deity; for our own purposes, we will assume that, given the three conditions, the inert monolith actually teaches or inspires ape and man to make the crucial advance. Therefore, it becomes a major force in man's evolution: man is not responsible for his own development, and perhaps the monolith even brings the men to it at the precise moment of the conjunctive orbits.

To Kubrick, this dehumanization is more than the result of the undefined force exerted by the monolith and proves a direct consequence of advanced technology. Kubrick is no stranger to the subject: The Killing and Lolita both involve man's self-expression through the automobile; Spartacus's defeat comes because he is not adequately prepared to meet the advanced military technology of the Roman army; Dr. Strangelove, of course, contains a running motif of machines assuming human characteristics (the machine sexuality of its opening titles) while humans become machinelike, a theme carried further in 2001. The central portion of 2001, the trip to Jupiter, can, as an odyssey toward a final progression of man, concern itself largely with Kubrick's persistent preoccupation of the relationship between man and his tools.

Kubrick prepares us for the ultimate emotional detachment of Bowman and Poole; his characterization of Dr. Floyd, the protagonist of the Moon sequence and the initiator of the Jupiter expedition, stresses his coldness, noticeably in a telephone conversation with his young daughter, a dialogue which suggests a reliance on manipulating her more than it demonstrates any love for her. These men, all professional, are no longer excited by space travel: they sleep during flights and pay no attention to what-we-consider-extraordinary phenomenon occuring before their eyes (the rapid rotation of the Earth in the background during the telephone scene).

Bowman and Poole are inhuman. Their faces register no emotion and they show no tension; their few decisions are always logical and the two always agree; Poole greets a televised birthday message from his gauche middle-class parents on Earth with complete lack of interest -- he is, for practical purposes, no longer their child. With subtle humor, Kubrick separates one from the other only in their choice of food from the dispensing machine: Poole chooses food with clashing colors and Bowman selects a meal composed entirely within the ochre-to-dark brown range. In a fascinating selection of material, Kubrick omits the actual act of Poole's murder, cutting to his body in space directly after the mechanical pod-hands sever his air hose, thus taking emphasis off any identification we might suddenly feel and turning the murder into cold, further dehumanized abstraction.

The only human in the film is HAL 9000, the super-computer which runs the ship and exhibits all the emotional traits lacking in Bowman and Poole. The script development is, again, linear: the accepted relationship of man using machine is presented initially, then discarded in favor of an equal balance between the two (HAL, for example, asks Bowman to show him some sketches, then comments on them). This equilibrium where men and machine perversely share characteristics shatters only when HAL mistakenly detects a fault in the communications system. The HAL computers cannot make mistakes and a confirmation of the error would necessitate disconnection. At this point the balance shifts again: Bowman asks HAL to explain his mistake and HAL denies it, attributing it to "human error"; we are reminded of the maxim, "a bad workman blames his tools," and realize HAL is acting from a distinctly human point of view in trying to cover up his error.

As the only human in the film HAL proves a greater murderer than any of the men. Returning 2001 to the theme of inherent destruction in social and technological progress, Kubrick's chilling last-shot-before-the- intermission (a shot from HAL's point-of-view, lip-reading a conversation of Bowman and Poole deciding to dismantle him if the mistake is confirmed) suggests the potential of machine to control man, the ultimate reversal of roles in a situation where man makes machines in his own image. HAL's success is partial; he murders Poole, and the three doctors on the ship in a state of induced hibernation. The murder of the sleeping doctors is filmed almost entirely as closeups of electronically controlled charts, a pulsating coordination of respiration regulators, cardiographs, and encephalographs. HAL shuts his power off gradually and we experience the ultimate dehumanization of watching men die not in their bed-coffins but in the diminished activity of the lines on the charts.

In attempting to reenter the ship from the pod he has used to retrieve Poole's corpse, Bowman must improvise -- for the first time -- ad-lib emergency procedures to break in against HAL's wishes. His determination is perhaps motivated by the first anger he has shown, and is certainly indicative of a crucial reassertion of man over machine, again shifting the film's balance concerning the relationship between man and tool. In a brilliant and indescribable sequence, preceded by some stunning low-angle camera gyrations as Bowman makes his way toward HAL's controls, the man performs a 1obotomy on the computer, dismantling all except its mechanical functions. Symbolically, it is the murder of an equal, and HAL's "death" becomes the only empathy- evoking scene in 2001. Unlike any of the humans, HAL dies a natural human death at Bowman's hand, slowing down into senility and second childhood, until he remembers only his first programmed memory, the song "Daisy," which he sings until his final expiration.

Bowman's complex act parallels that of the australopithecus: his use of the pod ejector to reenter the craft was improvisational, the mechanism undoubtedly designed for a different purpose -- this referring to the use of bone as weapon-tool. Finally in committing murder, Bowman has essentially lost his dehumanization and become an archetypal new being: one worthy of the transcendental experience that follows. For the last part of the film, we must assume Bowman an individual by virtue of his improvised triumph over the complex computer. Left alone in the spaceship, Bowman sees the monolith slab floating in space in Jupiter's atmosphere and takes off in a pod to follow it; knowing by now the properties of the pod, we can conjure images of the mechanical arms controlled by Bowman reaching to touch the monolith as did the australopithecines and the humans. The nine moons of Jupiter are in orbital conjunction (a near-impossible astronomical occurrence) and the monolith floats into that orbit and disappears. Bowman follows it and enters what Clarke calls the timespace warp, a zone "beyond the infinite" conceived cinematically as a five-minute three-part light show, and intercut with frozen details of Bowman's reactions.

If the monolith has previously guided man to major evolutionary and technological progression, it leads Bowman now into a realm of perception man cannot conceive, an experience unbearable for him to endure while simultaneously marking a new level in his progress. The frozen shots intercut with the light sequences show, debatably, Bowman's horror in terms of perception and physical ordeal, and his physical death: the last of many multicolored solarized close-ups of his eye appears entirely flesh-colored, and, if we are justified in creating a color metaphor, the eye is totally wasted, almost subsumed into a pallid flesh. When man journeys far enough into time and space, Kubrick and Clarke are saying, man will find things he has no right to see.

But this is not, as Clarke suggests in Life, the end of an Ahab-like quest on the part of men driven to seek the outer reaches of the universe. Bowman is led into the time warp by the monolith. The Moon monolith's radio signals directed toward Jupiter were not indicative of life as we know it on Jupiter, but were a roadmap, in effect, to show Bowman how to find his way to the monolith that guides him toward transcendent experience.

At the end, Bowman, probably dead (if we are to interpret makeup in conventional terms), finds himself in a room decorated with Louis XVI period furniture with fluorescent-lighted floors. He sees himself at different stages of old age and physical decay. Perhaps he is seeing representative stages of what his life would have been had he not been drawn into the infinite. As a bed-ridden dying man, the monolith appears before him and he reaches out to it. He is replaced by a glowing embryo on the bed and, presumably, reborn or transfigured into an embryo-baby enclosed in a sphere in our own solar system, watching Earth. He has plainly become an integral part of the cosmos, perhaps as Life suggests, as a "star-child" or, as Penelope Gilliatt suggests, as the first of a species of mutant that will inhabit the Earth and begin to grow. What seemed a linear progression may ultimately be cyclical, in that the final effect of the monolith on man can be interpreted as a progress ending in the beginning of a new revolutionary cycle on a vastly higher plane. But the intrinsic suggestiveness of the final image is such that any consistent theory about the nature of 2001 can be extended to apply to the last shot: there are no clear answers.

Several less-than-affirmative ideas can be advanced. The monolith is a representation of an extraterrestrial force which keeps mankind (and finally Bowman) under observation, and manipulates it at will. Man's progress is not of his own making, but a function of the monolith -- man cannot predict, therefore, the ensuing stages of his own evolution. That the initiation of man into higher stages of development involves murder casts ambiguity as to the nature of the monolith force. In its statement that man cannot control his destiny, 2001 is antihumanistic -- this also in the concept that what we consider humanity is actually a finite set of traits reproducible by machines.

The final appearance of the Louis XVI room suggests that Bowman was, in fact, being observed as if he were a rat in a maze, perhaps to test his readiness for a further progression, this time a transcendence. The decor of the room is probably not significant, and is either an arbitrary choice made by the observers, or else a projection of Bowman's own personality (the floor and the food are specifically within Bowman's immediate frame of reference).

If Kubrick's superb film has a problem, it may simply be that great philosophical-metaphysical films about human progress and man's relationship to the cosmos have one strike against them when they attempt to be literally just that. Rossellini's radiant religious films or Bresson's meditative asceticism ultimately say far more, I think, than Kubrick's far-more-ambitious attempt at synthesizing genre and meaning.

Nevertheless, 2001: A Space Odyssey cannot be easily judged if only because of its dazzling technical perfection. To be able to see beyond that may take a few years. When we have grown used to beautiful strange machines, and the wonder of Kubrick's special effects wears off by duplication in other Hollywood films, then we can probe confidently beyond 2001's initial fascination and decide what kind of a film it really is.